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The Leadership

Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

It is easy to establish that science has long been skewed towards celebrating ‘Great Men’ and male ways of working. For a host of reasons, attempts to up the participation rate of women in science have been marked more by enthusiasm and aspiration than actual runs on the board. In business too, women are still drastically underrepresented (and a recent report shows that the low number of women in CEO positions has stubbornly refused to shift).

Given that so much of this is known, and that most people of a progressive orientation would regret this state of affairs, this Australian documentary is probably going to appeal primarily to a pre-committed audience.

Ili Baré’s film tells the story of a trip to the Antarctic by a group of women in STEMM. She has some wonderful scenery to shoot from the boat of course, and footage of adorable penguins and, less felicitously, walls of sea ice prematurely melting into the ocean, give plenty of scope for visual pleasure. This least explored continent is still a place of wonder.

Baré needs grit though, to get purchase on the icy surfaces, and she therefore focusses on the emerging tense relations between the expedition’s organisers and the various scientists. The trip is a corporate training exercise (in female leadership) run by Fabian Dattner. She is very much at the heart of the whole enterprise (though she does have a male sidekick, who has the sense to take a back seat), and she clearly believes in her mission. The problem is that team building exercises and corporate management-training jargon don’t go down too well with these highly educated and rationally-orientated women. It is either too touchy feely or doesn’t have much sociological purchase on patriarchal inequalities. So, we get little side interviews to camera from the dissenters which can then be held against Fabian explaining herself to camera.

At one point, when Fabian is going through one of her endless debriefing sessions, all the scientists run to the windows because there is a whale breaching alongside the boat. Fabian seems mildly irritated by this rush to distraction but then the whales are more interesting, and nearer to why the women went there in the first place. To be fair, Fabian does grow and change during the arc of the narrative but by that stage many viewers may be past caring or simply be longing for a lot more of that wonderful animal footage.

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The Fight

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The Fight is a powerful and gripping documentary about the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Using a handful of case studies, the filmmakers expertly illustrate the range of the ACLU’s work and the tireless dedication of its staff and attorneys in the New York office.

The American Civil Liberties Union is a nonprofit organisation that was founded in 1920 “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

Over the opening credits, we hear US President Trump reciting the oath of office at his inauguration, promising – amongst other things – “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

We then jump to January 27, 2017 – one week after the country’s 58th presidential inauguration. All over the country, thousands of people are demonstrating, protesting the new administrations’ sudden and draconian actions against travelers from “Muslim countries” and immigrants seeking asylum. We see ACLU lawyers, as well as sympathetic activists, mobilising in response, and within the first four minutes of this compelling documentary, we see their first victory.

This is a dynamic and engaging doco that hits the ground running, immediately plunging us into high-stakes dramas of various individuals facing immediate deportation. The Fight goes on to clearly chart, in painstaking detail, the efforts of these activists in defense of abusive actions ordered by the new administration.

Directors Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Despres capture the thrills of victory and the devastation of defeat in these deeply personal battles. The storytellers put a human face on every story told, delivering harrowing true stories with the right amount of necessary detail, as well as infusing these real-life dramas with moments of humour and poignant emotion.

When a mother is separated from her child, a soldier is threatened with losing his career, a young woman’s right to choose is imperiled at the pleasure of a government official, and the ability of citizens to exercise their basic right to vote is threatened, the consequences are both individual and far-reaching, with the potential to have a devastating impact on future generations.

Combining all kinds of sourced footage, the filmmakers use split screen to excellent effect to demonstrate parallel narratives and to build tension. Another excellent filming technique is the use of illustrations of scenes inside the courtrooms where cameras are not permitted.

The film masterfully tracks these four recent ACLU cases, never losing the narrative thread of any of them, giving us a fascinating deep dive into winning strategies and highlighting the lawyers’ shrewd and dogged investigation.

Winner of the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award at Sundance earlier this year, The Fight is a superb documentary that gives us an inside look at the legal battles that lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union have been facing during the Trump administration. This is an important documentary that does the work of exploring serious issues of great significance to all American citizens.

Although they have been fighting for civil rights for 100 years, the resources, energies and commitment of the ACLU has never been tested quite so hard as in the past four years; to date they have issued close to 150 Lawsuits against the Trump Administration for violations of the US Constitution.

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David Attenborough – A Life on Our Planet

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Sir David Attenborough has, over the years, become more or less synonymous with nature films. His long-acquired detailed knowledge and his undiminished enthusiasm makes him the pre-eminent broadcaster of popular natural history and science. So, at aged 93, the fact that he is still here and making a ‘last’ film should guarantee that we sit up and take notice. This, he says, is his testimony. Whether ‘we’ will actually listen and do something about the problems to which he alludes, is another question of course.

The film takes a reasonably straight chronological approach, but this too has an enormous inbuilt advantage. The fact that Sir David has been travelling to distant environments and reporting for decades on so many habitats (the Life on Earth series was shot in 57 different countries) puts him in the perfect position to notice and chronicle change. Alas, most of that change has been a story of decline.

As he continues to point out, man, as a species, has been so successful in dominating nature, that he can now cause potentially irreversible damage. We are in the Anthropocene and we are not grown up enough to handle it.

The documentary is neither shrill nor hectoring. It does acknowledge, for example, that there have been five mass extinctions in the long history of the Earth. However, the last one was when a meteor wiped out the dinosaurs and we have presumably learnt a thing or two since then.

What we do know is that the ecologies of the planet are intricately linked and that a loss of biodiversity is the main thing we should be concerned about. Whether it is in the rain forests or in the plains, nature is both fecund and in balance and we mess with that at our peril.

Because the film is mostly concerned with shaping itself into a kind of essay or reasoned argument linked to the environments he has covered, it does not have extended sections of the sort of mesmerising animal photography for which his series are so beloved, There is enough of that footage though, to make us wonder and love nature in all its forms. It is perhaps no surprise that the film is made in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund.

It should be noted that the film isn’t just a death knell rung for our only planet. In the last section of the documentary, Sir David points out that there are several good trends to champion and give us hope (eg. the population boom beginning to plateau, the ready availability of non-fossil-based renewable energies and the current moves to stop us fishing out the oceans).

As implied, overall, it balances a strong sense of a wakeup call with a loving look at the sheer beauty that it is so vital to preserve.

* The cinema release includes exclusive content – a conversation with David Attenborough and Michael Palin following the film (not available on Netflix). Find session details at or cinema websites. David Attenborough – A Life on Our Planet on Netflix October 4

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Surviving the Silence

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In the case of the military, a closet hides not just the identities of gay, lesbian and transgender service people, but the skeletons of an institution’s refusal to offer dignity to non-heterosexual personnel.

In Cindy L. Abel’s detailed doco, Surviving the Silence, Col. Patsy “Pat” Thompson – a high-profile nurse who had served her career in-the-closet – denotes her thirty years of service in the American military. Thompson’s achievements, reflected in rank and decorated military honours, would not have occurred had she been open about her sexuality. Her discretion, a sign of systemic oppression towards the LGBTQ community, protected not only her career but her and her partner’s (Barbara) livelihoods.

It is clear that Thompson has always carried herself with the spirit of a soldier. Her involvement in the army is a natural fit for her stoic demeanour. The depth of which is captured impeccably by Abel as a series of interviews between Thompson, Barbara, and fellow military personnel who continue to fight for equal treatment.

Thompson observed the hardships of inequality from early youth. Raised in 1950s North Carolina, a setting deeply ingrained in religion, the inequalities felt by women (already troubling enough) amplified towards those attracted to the same sex.

The film contrasts Thompson’s experiences with the history of oppression received by LGBTQ military personnel. Intersecting this are animated stills which reveal the policies and laws which denied queer service people parity. (The inclusion of animation only feels out-of-place when sound clips and introductory text resemble the opening credits of 24.)

Where Surviving the Silence strikes hardest is in its optimism for better. It chooses to reflect on the past not as a means of indignance (however appropriate that would be), but in recognition of the disadvantages overcome by military personnel. The defining example of this being the film’s later coverage of Thompson’s involvement in the case of Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer; an openly gay military official who was dishonourably discharged because of her sexuality.

Despite their problematic experiences, the individuals front-and-centre of Surviving the Silence possess ample respect for an institution that had long deprived them of their dignity. The film does not condemn nor position interviewees as being complicit in facilitating the cycle of mistreatment, but rather, reinforces their deep sense of duty and determination to better the world. The result culminates in being a thoughtful homage to queer service-people.

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Steelers: The World’s First Gay Rugby Club

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Rugby has a certain image tinged with toxic masculinity. One which hasn’t been helped by players such as Israel Falou and his homophobic vitriol disguised as freedom of speech. Steelers: The World’s Frist Gay Rugby Club looks set to bleach that image by dismantling stereotypes and perceptions, and acting as a joyful celebration of the sport.

Directed by former Aussie news reporter, Eammon Ashton-Atkinson, the film follows the trials and tribulations of the titular Kings Cross Steelers, a London based rugby team founded in 1995 at the Central Station gay pub. The team’s aim then, as it is today, was to give gay and bisexual men an inclusive environment in which to play rugby. Over 20 years later, there are now more than 50 LGBTQIA clubs in the world. Not bad at all.

Having experienced a concussion 6 weeks into a season playing for the Steelers, Ashton-Atkinson picks up a camera to film the team’s chances as they enter the Bingham Cup, a competition named after gay rugby player, Mark Bingham, who died on the ill-fated flight, United 93. With the team in Amsterdam, and going up against teams like the Sydney Convicts, the director follows three members of the team, including coach Nic Evans, as they talk candidly about coming out and their relationship with Rugby.

Ashton-Atkinson clearly cares for his subjects as much as he does his sport, perhaps to a fault. As he manages to get them to open up, he’s almost apologetic about how they’ll be viewed once the film is released. And to be fair, for players like Simon Jones, the documentary is just another way of putting yourself out there that has not worked out for him in the past.

However, Ashton-Atkinson really shouldn’t worry. Steelers is a life affirming film that manages to whack a great big smile on your face. The joy and love the players have for each other is infectious, and even if you have no particular interest in the sport, you’ll be hard pushed not to be cheering them on as they charge towards the Bingham Cup final.

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Ahead of the Curve

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Mainstream success means more than financial reward for the people employed at fringe lesbian magazine Curve (formerly Deneuve): it means progress.

Curve magazine’s thirty-year history of championing lesbian voices is articulately explored in first time director Jen Rainin’s contemplative documentary, Ahead of the Curve.

The film follows the contribution made by founder and former Editor-in-chief Frances “Franco” Stevens. Her ambition is to advance lesbian representation in media, stemming from her frustration towards the suppression – if not erasure – of queer voices.

The film documents Stevens’ hardscrabble efforts to launch a publication – compounded by HIV/AIDs affected, Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell’ America – intercut with interviews from colleagues (well-known participants including Melissa Etheridge and Lea DeLaria) and present-day efforts in understanding how the publication fits within wider queer media. These complexities are expressed as the side-effects of an overabundance of online queer content, a decaying magazine landscape, and Trumpian politics.

Where Ahead of the Curve finds its stride is in its comprehensive dissection of current lesbian identity. We learn through the eyes of the extremely personable Stevens who, despite being a pioneer in the advancement of lesbian visibility (her grounding based in the liberal attitudes of ‘90s San Fran), reflects on what female representation looks like within contemporary LGBTQ society.

This level of self-reflection allows Ahead of the Curve to comment on the present issues faced by queer identity: the terminology and use of language, particularly the divisiveness of the term lesbian. The film recognises the distinction (and overlap) between communities based on sexuality and gender. Their forever evolving definitions are revealing of a greater need for broader education on queer culture.

That said, the communities themselves are not without their destructive tendencies. The point made in the film is that by having these discussions, it hammers home the need for ongoing dialogue, and the importance in having safe spaces/outlets for communities to not only embrace their culture, but to preserve it.

Told with humour, intelligence and an abundance of personality, Ahead of the Curve posits that the spectrum of lesbian identity is greater than the product of its struggles. It is a stark reminder of the importance of visibility (particularly for women who remain under-represented at the best of times) in the fight for equality.

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In the world of professional boxing, Irish Olympic gold medallist and world titleholder Katie Taylor is as much of a champion outside the ring as she is inside it.

Training as doggedly as any other competitive boxer, Taylor, to the failure of society, is denied the equal treatment with her male contemporaries.

Exploring Taylor’s turbulent career and her fight for equality in a profession dominated by men, Ross Whitaker’s documentary Katie offers a spirited look at the strength of women.

Taylor’s rise from athletically gifted youth to world-class boxing sensation is told with loving candour. It is clear that there are no greater Katie Taylor supporters than her own family. Their deep admiration, seeping through every ounce of the film, is expressed through interviews and archival footage.

Whitaker positions boxing as a wider stand-in for gender inequity. He uses Taylor’s difficulties in accessing equal treatment through promotion and pay, to denote the systemic practices that disadvantage women. The contribution made by Taylor in campaigning for women to compete in boxing at the Olympics, an achievement not rectified until 2012, becomes a troubling example of the pace at which professional sports trails behind the times.

Katie Taylor does not need sympathy, nor does she need her struggle to be romanticised. What she demands is immediate action in the fight to have women be fairly represented in not only positions of power, but in all facets of society.

She will continue to push for this with a sheer determination in hand and an ego left at the door. Unfortunately, she just has to wait for the world to catch up with her.